I’ve been following news about the Brock Turner rape case. (And, let’s get this straight. It was rape.)
I’m encouraged by the public outpouring of support for the young woman he assaulted. People want to express their outrage over Turner’s too-light sentence and that’s a good thing.
But we should be careful about speaking for and over victims.
“Her life is ruined.”
“She’ll never recover from this.”
I’ve read comments like these about this particular woman, and so many other women who’ve been raped, assaulted, and abused.
Let me tell you something about being a victim. It strips you of power—of agency. When you’re in the middle of it, you’re not the one calling the shots and making decisions. Someone else is in control of you. Someone else is forcing you to play a role you don’t want.
And you’d think once the violence ends, that’s over. You get control back. Except society has its own role you’re expected to play. Now you’re a victim. And for some reason (maybe out of a desire to shield and protect) people think they get to speak for you. That they get to frame your life.
This woman wrote a strong letter, which she read aloud in front of Turner.
You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.
Victims are often stripped of their voice. Because of fear or shame or people who won’t listen. It’s important to allow them to speak about their experiences, on their own terms, without projecting our own assumptions onto them.
If a victim says, “My life was ruined,” she is absolutely allowed to say that. She lived through the experience, so she gets to express herself in any way she needs to.
But you don’t get to say it. Because you don’t know.
You have no way of knowing what she’ll do with her life in the future. A rape survivor isn’t just a rape survivor. She’s a lot more than that. Don’t strip her of the rest of her identity.
Do you have any idea how many people have been assaulted in the US? Over 293,000 people every year. Do you honestly think that none of these people will go on to do great things? That all of these lives are ruined?
How do you think it makes a rape survivor feel when she hears, “Being raped ruins a woman’s life”? Don’t you think that might further strip her of agency? She wasn’t in control of her life during the rape, and now you aren’t allowing her to be in control of her life after the rape. You’re saying that another person’s actions will always steer her life.
Maybe she’ll have a hard time moving forward. Maybe she’ll never quite be able to move forward. Or maybe she will.
You don’t know. Because it didn’t happen to you.
We rightly crack down on people who say, “Oh, why doesn’t she just get over it? It wasn’t so bad.” But let’s crack down on people who swing the narrative too far in the other direction too.
Is rape a serious and terrible crime? That’s an emphatic yes. I’m not suggesting it’s less significant than it is.
What I’m saying is the only person who gets to decide what a rape survivor does with her life is her. She gets to be in control. Not us.